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Opinion

Editorial: Noncitizens in America deserve a pathway to citizenship, not the ability to vote

EAST LOS ANGELES, CA JUNE 5, 2018 -- A voter cast theirr ballot at the Hollenbeck Recreation Center
 
(Los Angeles Times)

Five years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown used these words in his veto of a bill: “Jury service, like voting, is quintessentially a prerogative and responsibility of citizenship.”

At the time, the issue was legislation that would have allowed noncitizens who were legally in the country to serve on juries. Brown probably didn’t foresee a day when not just noncitizens, but immigrants in the country illegally would be registering to vote for school board candidates. Yet that’s what’s happening in San Francisco, thanks to an initiative voters passed in 2016 that temporarily opened the ballot box in school-board elections to all adult residents of the city who have children younger than 19.

The philosophy behind the expanded voting rights is easy to understand. Parents have a personal stake in the schools their children attend, and it’s frustrating when school leaders don’t listen to them. The power of the vote would take them one step closer to having their voices heard.

Brown’s words should prevail nonetheless. Voting is one of the great privileges of citizenship. It’s a privilege that too few Americans appreciate or consider a responsibility, that’s for sure. But voting acts as a vital form of oversight for all three branches of government in California, and that check on governmental power should be reserved for those who have the formal, binding tie to the nation and each other of citizenship.

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Who gets a say in the running of public agencies and governments — the users of those services or the voting public? The answer should be the latter.

California already gives noncitizen parents a form of school oversight via the parent trigger law. That trigger has a greater and more direct effect on schools without giving noncitizens the authority to change governmental leadership. If enough parents sign a petition to force drastic change at their children’s low-performing schools, their petition has the force of law. In contrast, a school board might or might not listen to the concerns of parents. Noncitizen parents also have the right to form parent organizations and join the PTA and school advisory boards.

Besides, if the rationalization is that people should be able to vote on matters that directly affect them, why stop at schools? Noncitizens have a clear interest in transportation, healthcare, environmental protection, land use, taxes and law enforcement, to name just a few issues.

The deeper question is: Who gets a say in the running of public agencies and governments — the users of those services or the voting public? The answer should be the latter.

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Communities are built on the very idea the word implies — that we are not just an assortment of individual interests but a larger entity with a communal interest in a well-functioning society. Parents’ concerns about schools obviously count and should be taken seriously, but dating back to the early settlers, entire towns understood the importance of educating new generations and contributed collectively to provide that for all children. Noncitizens are welcome to contribute to U.S. society and to benefit from its policies and public services. But governance of those public matters belongs with the citizenry.

In response to San Francisco’s experiment with school board voting, which will expire after the 2022 election unless that county’s supervisors extend it, former Republican congressman Doug Ose is trying to qualify an initiative for the 2020 ballot barring noncitizens from voting in California’s state and local elections. We agree with the goal, although we suspect Ose is motivated mainly by a desire to increase GOP turnout that year.

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In ways it is easier to rationalize giving the vote to undocumented immigrants than to noncitizens who are here legally. Intransigence at the federal level continues to leave the country without a long-overdue overhaul of our immigration laws. People who are in the country illegally have no current path to citizenship, no matter how long they may have lived in the United States, how devoted they might feel toward the nation and their individual communities, or how much they already participate in public life.

But even giving the vote to noncitizens who could be naturalized if they chose to go through the process is problematic — it would provide a disincentive for them to dedicate themselves to that task.

The right way to begin extending voting rights would be to provide a path to citizenship for those who lack one now and encourage those who have such a path to use it. The nation relies on its voting citizenry, a system that should be strengthened rather than diluted.

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